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"Our War Against Boko Haram Will Start Tomorrow" - Tunji Ajibade

The Nigerian Army has been at its best in the North-East of late.

Nothing proves it more than a news item the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV aired not long ago. Its reporter had gone to areas affected by insurgency in the North-East to investigate what he called a resurgence in house construction. He made sense. When houses begin to spring up in a war zone, it means people have gained confidence, they believe normalcy is returning. But our North-East and the new houses aren’t where I’m going. Libya is; no, it’s Syria that actually comes first. Then, I’ll take the route in reverse order back to our North-East. Unfortunately, it’s this same route paid fighters in Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are taking at the moment. That they may end up in our North-East to cause us fresh troubles is what I focus on here.

If the reader asks me what difference can be between two groups that take up arms against the state, I don’t know. But it’s important we don’t take both to be the same. The West is particular about this. The United States, for instance, has scant view of al-Assad’s government, actively supports Syrian rebels, but hates IS. Al-Assad is fighting Syrian rebels, and it fights IS at the same time. Russia supports al-Assad, and fights both the rebels and IS. It’s a crazy scenario.We knew that a large part of Syria had been taken over by Syrian rebels since 2014. They say they want President Bashar al-Assad out of power. Those ones are different from the fighters for Islamic State.

But the US and its western allies see clearly through it. They want Assad out of power. They want Syrian rebels that they call moderates to organise a new government. In order to help rebels against al-Assad, they fight IS from the air, dropping bombs on as many fighters as they can.

The government of Syria didn’t start out fighting IS. It began by fighting rebels. All of that had followed a protest for entrenchment of democracy which the government repelled, forcing rebels to fight back. They soon controlled parts of Syria. With government losing control of parts of its territory, IS reinforced from Iraq that had been in chaos for a longer time, occupied parts of Syria and thereafter proclaimed a grander caliphate as Boko Haram had done across nations in the Lake Chad Basin. We know however that there are more facts in the public space about what IS has and does not have than Nigeria has about Boko Haram. By 2014, territory under the control of IS in Syria and Iraq had peaked. Its annual income was $2.9 billion from oil and gas installations in both countries. It has also robbed banks of about $1 billion dollars. Some $500 million come from sales of crude and refined oil smuggled out of IS’ area of control. It illegally sold antiquities taken from museums. It raised over a billion dollars in taxes as well as tariffs on goods coming in and going out of its territory. Extortions through kidnapping have also earned it some $45 million, and there are the donations from sympathisers abroad.

With the West’s relentless bombing these days, IS’ income is significantly reduced. The US military says IS’ territory has been cut by about 40 per cent in Syria and 20 per cent in Iraq. It had also killed thousands of IS fighters. The outcome? Less funds to pay fighters. So, many dropped their weapons to return to where they came from, or where they could get paid for fighting. Libya is one of such.

IS itself has always worked at having a foothold in Libya. Europe has a fair idea of the number of its citizens that are heading back home, or to Libya. African nations don’t, and they don’t seem to care. But West Africans, including Nigerians, are known to have fought in Syria, and are fighting in Libya.

It was a fact that proliferation of arms across West Africa was noticed during the civil war that brought down the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Civil war continues in Libya, and it’s the country IS targets for a home with the squeeze it’s getting in Syria.

Why is Libya a viable home for IS? Like it happened in Iraq and Syria, IS is exploiting the collapse of a central government in Libya, as well as the ongoing civil war. Here, one government in Tripoli to the West, and another in Tobruk to the east, claim to be in control of Libya. Both want to maintain the territory under their control; they have no desire to wrest control of territory from each other.

IS controls Sirte on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and some 200km around it. Since IS’ territory is between the two rival governments, it’s largely at ease, even hoping to expand in both directions.

Moreover, Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, has world-class infrastructure such as a seaport, oil installations and an international airport, making it attractive to IS. But it also means IS can easily infiltrate Europe and cause havoc.

As things stand, West Africa too is not safe. Having sworn allegiance to IS, Nigeria needs to worry that Boko Haram may show IS fighters the route to our North-East. IS reportedly has some 5,000 fighters in Sirte, and it continues to attract to itself Africans that travel to Libya for the purpose of getting into Europe. These migrants need money, and IS pays good dollars. If it means to, IS can attract as many West Africans as it needs. This situation is real to me, because in my movement across northern Nigeria, I have had information from persons who know someone that has gone to Libya.

In fact, there’s a recent case of a Nigerian male who’s fighting in Libya and is alleged to have lured two Nigerian girls to join him. What this means is that if things ever get tight for IS in Libya, Nigeria should be prepared to fight another round of war against Boko Haram tomorrow. And this will be on two different fronts. One will be against our citizens who go out of the country that we don’t know of yet. They are radicalised and when they return home and mix up with people, they may form cells and cause mayhem. Then there’s Boko Haram leadership that may lead IS fighters in this direction.

Part of our challenges is that we don’t seem to know exactly the magnitude of what confronts us. Nigeria still doesn’t have the needed information on its enemies, except what foreign governments offer.

That is okay where IS and Al-Qaeda are concerned. But foreign governments cannot give us better information about our own citizens than we can. The state of our information gathering is such that one worries about. Sometimes one feels Nigeria doesn’t have agencies that are responsible for gathering information at all. There’s that sense of chaos. When killings took place in Enugu State recently, allegedly by herdsmen, our agencies were preoccupied with trying not to be seen to have failed in discharging their duties. One agency said the attackers were from outside the country, without providing facts. The Nigeria Immigration Service said the attackers were not foreigners, without providing facts to back its claims. The picture here is, one doesn’t get signs that these agencies are on top of the situation they are given statutory power to control.

What does all of that tell us about the job the military has on its hands in the war against terrorism? A difficult task. The military is combing North-East for terrorists, but it hasn’t relevant information about the next possible line of attack from terrorists. I doubt that we’re watching Libya closely in order to project what precautionary steps we should take. The other day, an international body warned that the Nigerian military shouldn’t think once it removes Boko Haram from its hideouts in Borno State it could go and rest. I agree. Some of the issues raised above are the reasons the organisation said what it said. What this means is that we may know when we clear Sambisa forest of Boko Haram. What we don’t know is when and how the enemies will launch the next attack. It’s the reason we must prepare for tomorrow’s war, today.

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